The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) held their annual conference March 26-27 in Washington, DC.
If you ever want to surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable and committed to changing the education system from an industrial paradigm to one that fits today’s environment, this is the right group for you.
Demographics expert Dr. James Johnson, Jr. explained that demographics are easy to predict, but only if you pay attention to the data. Here is what the data tells him:
The world is changing. Every day, six thousand boomers turn 65. As boomers age, the 25-40 demographic continues to shrink. Dr. Johnson explained that’s a trend we can expect to hold for the next 20 years. So the workforce is shrinking and will continue to shrink, but the demographics are more concerning than that. Consider that 50% of millennials are unemployed or underemployed: they are not buying houses, they are not starting families, and they are not helping us grow the economy or compete in world markets. Many millennials are simply missing the tools to contribute; for instance, 80% of community college students need remedial work in at least one area.
The picture painted by this data is of a ballooning retiree-age population, a shrinking workforce, and a trained workforce shrinking even faster. Dr. Johnson asks the serious question: Who is going to support boomer benefits under these conditions? We need both jobs and a trained workforce, and other countries already understand the role of education in driving both. The way we respond will set our destiny.
Kelly Young and Julie Renkoski from the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution have some ideas about our response. They insist that transformational change is needed in education – an idea we’ve heard often over the past few years – and then they go on to offer specifics.
Understand that our current education system was born in the Industrial Age. The leaders of the day thought that standardization was the most efficient way to teach. Accustomed to dealing with machines, they had a rigid idea of cause and effect, and assumed that children must be taught in order to learn. Reasoning that children, like cogs, are interchangeable, they never questioned that age was the most important factor in determining learning readiness. All children should focus on the same core subjects, the three R’s – reading, (w)riting, and ‘rithmatic. They need designated time to learn how to socialize with other students. Taking their business ventures as the model, it was obvious to them that education policy and practice should be hierarchical. And if teachers cause learning, it stood to reason that better teachers should cause better learning.
Today we are at the beginning of the Network Era. The opportunity is before us to fit education to our new most important needs. We’re no longer turning out Company Men; we’re interested in purposely preparing students to live as adults in a future that we have no way of understanding today. To prepare them to live in a social world, we’re starting to understand that we need to build social time into kids’ days. And in the age of Connection, it is becoming increasingly clear that one size does not fit all, that local design thinking is important, and that top down structures don’t have the flexibility to meet our needs.
Kelly and Julie showed that this is an occasion for excitement and hope. Everything that needs to be done to transform education, they tell us, is being done in experiments across the country.
If you’re wondering where state policy fits in this new, bottom-up world, there was a panel for you, too. One of the highlights of the conference features Dr. June St. Clair Atkinson (North Carolina), Dr. Terry Holliday (Kentucky), and Sec. Rebecca Holcombe (Vermont), moderated by Brian Kelly (US News & World Report) on that knotty problem.
They agreed that test scores don’t tell us much, and we really messed up the way we are linking teacher evaluation to test scores. 15% of student achievement comes from teacher, but 50% comes from socio-economic status. As a country, we need to recognize that the family and cultural supports kids rely on are not there for disadvantaged students.
Solutions will only emerge once we understand and take ownership of the problem. To shore up those community supports, we should recognize that every child needs an adult who cares about their education, who can coach, advocate for, or push them. We need to acknowledge that loss of funds for summer school and after school programs really hurts our ability to help the underprivileged.
Accountability shouldn't be synonymous to blame and shame. Not using tests for accountability is not the same as saying there shouldn't be accountability, which raises two interesting questions:
How do we transition to truly knowing how our schools are doing?
How do we embed assessment into learning, instead of treating testing as a separate function? (This is actually a key advantage of games and game based learning, which is why we are starting the Games4Ed collaboration.)
They also acknowledged that some of the most exciting learning is taking place in competency- and skills-based CTE (Career and Technical Education, what many used to call Vocational Education). Some of the best math is happening in 3D printing classes.
There are great exemplars out there, and state policy can help to scale them. Policy needs to nourish innovation and help innovators get around the boundaries and obstacles.
To teach 21st century skills requires a culture change, and that change does not align with the current rewards system. The paradox of policy that leads to innovation is that if innovation is dictated from the top, it’s not innovation. That means we need to radically rethink the role of policy in the 21st century; we need to learn to be comfortable with not knowing the answer ahead of time. We should focus on creating an atmosphere where educators have the freedom to find new answers.
The panel turned to author Daniel Pink for 3 factors that promote high performance:
A sense of autonomy – ask yourself whether we even give that to teachers, much less students.
A strong sense of mastery – right now we are telling 60% of students they are failing.
A sense of purpose – people need larger goals to reach for; do “higher test scores” fill the bill?
We need to remind ourselves that the goal of education is not to do well on tests, but to prepare students to participate in society and the economy. Education should prepare kids to be lifelong learners because we have no idea what skills they will need in 20 years. It will take adjustment and flexibility, but the rewards will be tremendous.
In another interesting session, Heather Loewicke of the Asia Society shared a case study in which 21st century skills were developed through competency-based expanded learning opportunities. New Hampshire changed their focus from Carnegie Units (seat time) to competencies. Students and teachers both were trained on what it means to be globally competent, and students worked on developing core competencies in each course. The goal was for students to learn anywhere, anytime.
To meet this ambitious goal, strong commitment from school leadership was absolutely required. Teachers and communities would be expected to play a role, but students also needed to work on designing projects. The group effort would get results that both aligned with and surpassed learning standards. In the words of Michael Fullan, “Use the group to change the group.”
Students must be trained to ask themselves the following questions habitually:
- What's the project?
- What do I think we might accomplish?
- What do I think I will learn, what learning standards does this fulfill?
- What am I accomplishing?
- What am I learning?
- What more do I need to learn?
When they reach this point, they are autodidacts, and that is a powerful thing.
This year’s P21 Conference was thought-provoking and energizing. Many trails have already been blazed, but there’s a lot to do.
One more note:
The 21st Century Learning Exemplar Program identifies what 21st century educational practices look like and where they are being implemented, providing educators and communities with a variety of models to replicate, and offering policymakers and P21 State Partners local examples to help encourage their support. You can view the list of exemplar schools, and what we can learn from their examples here: http://www.p21.org/exemplar-program-case-studies/list-of-exemplar-schools